Software in the cloud provides real-time data and creates efficiencies

If you haven’t recently considered how cloud accounting software can help your business function more smoothly, it may be time to do so.

“Cloud accounting software has come a long way in just the last year,” says Heather McNichols, director of accounting services, Rea & Associates Inc. “Many business owners looked at these systems a year or two ago and were not impressed. A lot has changed, and it’s definitely worth a second look.”

Smart Business spoke with McNichols about how cloud accounting software can help businesses function more efficiently and allow them to see their financials in real time, vs. relying on paper documents that could reflect data that is days or weeks old.

How does a cloud accounting software system work?

It’s an internet-based server system that does all of a business’s accounting functions, from accounts payable, to invoicing, to a general ledger, in the cloud. A year ago, it was a nice benefit to have, but during the pandemic, it can be lifechanging.

You can access the accounting software and records from any device, so you don’t have to be in the office connected to the server. Your accounts payable person can be working at home in Ohio, while your accounts receivable person is at home in Florida, and they both have access to the same data in real time. That gives employees the flexibility to work from anywhere.

What are some other benefits of cloud accounting?

The biggest benefit is decreased maintenance of a network — either you don’t need one at all, or it doesn’t need to be as big — and you don’t have to pay to have your network updated. Your data is also protected and backed up in the cloud, whereas if it is on your internal server and the server crashes, or something happens to the building, it can cost thousands of dollars to retrieve it and build a new network.

Another benefit is that you don’t have to keep up with software updates, because in the cloud, you get automatic updates to the software, so you are always working in the newest version.

How can the system increase efficiencies?

There are other applications that can be bolted on to your cloud accounting software. If you need to track employee expenses, there are apps that efficiently work with your online accounting software.

That removes a lot of manual entries and mundane tasks, and increases accuracy, because any time you have a human element in the process, there is the opportunity for errors.

Cloud accounting software also decreases search time for documents, as employees no longer need to spend time searching for files that may have been misplaced or lost, or be outdated.

And because everything is in one place, and data is updated in real time, business owners have the information they need at their fingertips. If you are in a meeting, you can pull up financials and see where things are sitting at that moment with live data.

With paper reports, you could be working off of data that is days, weeks, or even months old.

How secure are cloud accounting software systems?

The systems have a massive amount of encryption, so security is top-notch. The companies that offer these systems would be at risk themselves if data were accessed, so they take every precaution, such as double authentication, to ensure that data remains secure.

Cloud accounting software systems have come a long way and continue to evolve. Business owners owe it to themselves to at least look at them to see how they can benefit their companies.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Rea & Associates

How to manage your sales and use tax obligations

The Wayfair decision changed the criteria that determine when a company selling goods or services can be required to collect state sales tax. But not all companies affected by the decision have complied.

“I am surprised by the number of companies that have yet to adapt, particularly companies that sell online,” says Stephen Estelle, Tax Manager at Clark Schaefer Hackett. “I continue to come across companies that have heard of Wayfair, but have done nothing about it.”

Smart Business spoke with Estelle about some of the ways companies can keep up with their sales and use tax obligations.

How does a company know where it needs to file?

To know if it has a filing responsibility, a company needs to understand state law and how it applies to the company’s activities in the state.
Wayfair expanded states’ ability to require an out-of-state company to collect the state’s sales tax. Now, states can require an out-of-state company to collect the state’s sales tax if the company has sufficient ‘economic presence’ in the state.

The most common economic threshold for a sales tax requirement is $100,000 in sales or 200 transactions in a state. The traditional parameters, however, such as whether a company has an employee presence or physical locations in the state, still apply. Complicating the situation, each state has its own parameters for determining when tax needs to be collected.

How can companies be sure they’re calculating the taxes correctly?

Calculating tax requires an analysis of state law and an understanding of the state’s sourcing rules. Depending on the state, some transactions are taxed all the time while some are circumstantially exempt.

Typically, a state will source a sale to the jurisdiction where the good is sold or delivered. Identifying that particular jurisdiction, however, can be tricky. While most states have a tax rate lookup system that enables companies to search for the correct jurisdiction and rate, it can be daunting when a company has thousands of customers with different addresses. Complete accuracy would require a check of every single transaction.

Alternatively, a company can invest in sales tax automation software. But, whether that software produces the correct result depends on whether the company gave it the correct information at the start.

What challenges are there for companies that want to handle sales and use tax compliance in-house?

There are three main challenges: personnel, cost and risk.

Calculating sales tax in-house requires at least one individual who is more than just knowledgeable about sales taxes. Companies who invest in such a person risk that person moving on and taking that knowledge with them. Also, sales tax isn’t really a full-time job. Returns are typically due around the 20th of the month, so there’s a lot of downtime for a sales tax expert.

There can also be ongoing technology costs, such as compliance and research software.

Finally, if the person handling sales tax doesn’t rise to the level of ‘expert,’ there’s increased risk that the decisions made will turn out to be incorrect and will lead to tax, penalties and interest on audit.

What are some tools companies can use to help with compliance?

Software can help, but the more the software is asked to do, the more expensive it gets. Also, the software needs to be set up correctly and checked often to ensure its accuracy, and that requires an expert.

Another option is to outsource the function or employ a hybrid solution — for instance, working with a sales tax expert on a quarterly basis to make sure filings are happening in the right states, that tax is being charged when it should be, and that it’s being calculated correctly and for the right jurisdiction.

Although it’s often the smallest item on the invoice, companies should take it seriously, especially now, because states are going to be hungry for revenue. If there is an out-of-state company that hasn’t been filing when it should have, states will be motivated to go after them.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Clark Schaeffer Hackett

What to do when an employee contracts COVID-19

Employers operating during the pandemic have responsibilities they have not had before. They’re sometimes taking employees’ temperatures and asking them questions to determine the state of their health before they walk in the door. This is, in part, to ensure the safety of all employees working in close proximity to one another and to mitigate legal liability, but there’s another reason to be diligent now.

“Trust has to be there because people are really frightened about this,” says Peter J. Olmsted, director of executive talent solutions at Clark Schaefer Hackett. “Employers need to be as transparent as possible and put the safety and security of their employees first. If they do that, they should not have any undue legal risk.”

Smart Business spoke with Olmsted about the responsibilities employers have to their employees, legal and otherwise, through the pandemic.

How does a company typically learn an employee has contracted COVID-19?

Generally, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you can’t ask employees certain questions about their health, except when there’s a substantial threat to the safety of employees or others. So, employers can ask their employees if they have COVID-19.

Employers could ask employees health questions as part of their screening protocol. Much like employers can require employees to have their temperature taken, they can also ask employees if they’ve come in contact with anyone known or suspected to have COVID-19 or if they’re feeling well today, and employees must respond in order to work and receive pay for that day.

What are the employer’s obligations when an employee tests positive for COVID-19?

Employers have an obligation to make sure that anyone who had any potential exposure to a person infected by COVID-19 is notified of the location and the timing of that interaction, but not the specific person’s name. That has to be kept confidential.

There are other actions employers can take that are not required but can help them to have the best outcomes while maintaining a positive culture. For example, there may not be an obligation to communicate updates to employees every day regarding COVID-19 cases, but it’s probably a good idea. If no one tested positive, tell them that as well. This can go a long way toward keeping up trust between employers and employees.

What required reporting exists for companies that have confirmed COVID-19 cases?

Employers are required to immediately report the employee, or even a customer who had the virus and was working at or visiting an employer’s facility, to the Ohio Health Department. The local health department may also require employers to identify anyone potentially exposed to those infected individuals to help facilitate contact tracing. It may also be necessary to shut down a facility and bring in professionals to do a deep cleaning, then reopening in consultation with the local health department.

What legal risks exist for a company once an employee has contracted the virus?

The liability issue has yet to be fully tested in court, but there are mistakes employers can make that would put them more at risk of being held liable. For example, if an employer doesn’t report cases to local and state health departments, it could be fined. Employers are also required to report cases to OSHA when they learn someone has entered their facility who tested positive for a COVID-19 illness. Another issue is not taking reasonable steps to protect employees — steps such as social distancing, mask wearing and regular cleanings. Employers can also get in trouble for not complying with federal or state guidelines, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Employers should show that they care about their employees and be proactive when it comes to mitigation steps. That means staying up to date, because the laws are changing every day, and overcommunicating with employees. Consider that the actions employers take today to protect employees are going to be remembered by those employees in the future when work returns to normal.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Clark Schaefer Hackett

Building a recovery plan for your business

Businesses have suffered massive disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic. But smart businesses can turn that into a positive — and prepare for future disruptions — by taking a number of steps, says Tom Wolf, CPA, director, Brady Ware & Co.

“No one was prepared for what happened, economically or socially,” says Wolf. “A lot of businesses are still doing well, but a lot aren’t. And even if you’re doing well now, that could change.”

Smart Business spoke with Wolf about how to emerge stronger from this downturn and how to prepare for the next one

How can companies begin to plan for a recovery from the impact of COVID-19?

First, assess where you are. Look at the last six months and determine what went well and what didn’t. For the things that didn’t, look at whether you can make adjustments, and have a plan B and C.

For the things that went well, how can you capitalize? Consider how you can take advantage of those things, but don’t get complacent. Things can change on a dime, so don’t think that because things are going well you can rest easy.

Also look at suppliers and customers. Create a backup plan so you can accomplish what you need to. And think about whether things will return to normal, or whether this is the new normal, and adjust accordingly.

How should companies be reimagining a new business environment and culture?

Review your risk model and technology platforms to ensure you can pivot as needed. Consider the way employees work and how expectations have changed. Be flexible with your workforce and how work gets done.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on commercial real estate as companies realize they don’t need all the space they have. Many are finding they just need a central location, and not everyone needs to be in the office.

In addition, businesses that laid off employees may find they are getting the same amount of productivity with fewer people. If they continue to do well, that will also reduce the need for office space and help improve efficiencies and control costs.

What do business leaders need to understand about their financials?

When a major disruption occurs, the strength of your balance sheet determines how well you can withstand it and for how long. It should let you take advantage of opportunities and be on the offensive. With companies struggling, there may be ways to expand. Income, revenue and expenses are important, but if you lose sight of your balance sheet, you may miss an opportunity.

How can your financial partners help?

Access to financing could become more challenging, and your banker, accountant and attorney can help you model out loan covenants and modifications as needed.

They can also look at cash flow and future profitability and help you be conservatively realistic about what you can do. If you are in a position to be cautiously aggressive, your strategic partners can help guide you, because if an opportunity presents itself, you don’t want to miss it. Shore up your financial situation, work with your financial partners to project out into the future and address potential speed bumps as quickly as possible.

How can companies reinvent their marketing and sales plans?

The way we connect with people has changed. We have to find new ways to connect and adjust how we think about making connections. If you’re not in a client’s business, how do you market to them and make yourself valuable? You need to make every interaction count.

Continue to adapt every day as the world changes and the way we’ve done business no longer exists. Focus on opportunities for margin and align marketing and sales in terms of goals, revenue and process.

People became complacent and didn’t realize the magnitude of what could happen. How are you going to be prepared for next big change, whatever it is?

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Brady Ware & Company

Leverage insight in consumer purchasing behavior to drive sales

Consumer confidence, the general measure of consumers’ economic optimism or pessimism, fell 30 percent from February to April. As businesses began shutting down and people began losing their jobs, they became fearful, which caused an unusually rapid decline in confidence to the lowest level the U.S. has seen since 2011.

While that news should be a cause for concern among retailers, data analytics can help retailers better understand consumer purchasing behaviors and appeal to the changing sentiments of their specific customers to maintain, or even increase, sales.

Smart Business spoke with Jonathan Poeder, director of data analytics at Clark Schaefer Hackett, about the pandemic’s effect on consumer behaviors and what retailers can do to meet new consumer demands.

How is unemployment driving purchasing behavior?

We’ve had a historic rise in unemployment with over 40 million people losing their jobs since mid-March, which brought the national unemployment rate to 13.3 percent in May. That’s really driving consumers to reduce their spending and seek out value.

Research has shown half of U.S. consumers have been reducing their spending. We also see evidence of an increase in value-conscious behavior in the consumer packaged goods market, which is driving up sales of private label products about 19 percent year over year. There was already an upward deterministic trend of private label sales, but it has been accelerated by the pandemic.

There has also been a large shift away from brick-and-mortar toward e-commerce. Some estimates expect brick-and-mortar retail sales will drop by about 14 percent for 2020 and e-commerce sales will increase by about 18 percent.

Historically, consumer sentiment follows closely with economic conditions. The expectation is that, as the economy recovers, consumer sentiment will become more positive. Depending on how things unfold, it could get worse before it gets better. COVID-19 infections are spiking, which may bring another round of closures that could exacerbate consumers’ pessimistic views. Furthermore, in terms of purchasing behavior, there is data that suggest consumers will maintain cost-conscious behavior in a post-COVID economy.

How can individual retailers identify changes in their customers’ behaviors?

National trends are relevant, but it’s good to look at certain characteristics that drive purchasing behavior within individual retailers. People are making fewer trips when they go shopping, so managing inventory is very important. Customers want to feel appreciated, which means retailers should continue recognizing and rewarding loyalty even during a difficult time. Safety is top of mind. Retailers can benefit by having curbside pickup and other options for contactless shopping.

Convenience is key, which means meeting shoppers where they want to shop. That could mean transitioning to an e-commerce platform or providing other ways to make shopping easy for customers. Keep customers’ price sensitivity in mind and find ways to provide value within their budget.

How can retailers use data to stay on top of changing consumer sentiment?

The very first step for retailers is to make sure they have clean data as a foundation for analysis. That foundation can then support business intelligence tools — software that connects their data to create dashboards, or automated reports. The dashboards include key performance indicators and data visualizations that tell retailers how their business is doing in real time.

The next level is incorporating predictive analytics, which uses sophisticated algorithms and machine learning to generate predictions about the future. That enables retailers to determine which customers to target with promotions to drive the greatest incremental revenue, or to predict how much inventory should be kept on hand.

Many retailers don’t have the budget or skillset to take full advantage of the analytical tools and methodologies out there. Fortunately, there are service providers who specialize in data analysis. They can help retailers analyze all aspects of the customer experience and identify strategies to drive more positive purchasing behaviors during a difficult time.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Clark Schaefer Hackett

Top HR issues employers need to be thinking about

As workplaces have shifted into virtual mode, human resource priorities have shifted, as well, says Renee West, SHRM-SCP, PHR, senior human resource manager at Rea & Associates.

“Topics have trended differently in response to COVID-19, and employers need to have certain measures in place from an HR compliance standpoint,” she says.

Smart Business spoke with West about how to comply with coronavirus-related regulations and other HR topics that should be top of mind for employers.

What should employers be doing in response to the pandemic?

No. 1, employers need to be compliant with COVID-19 regulations. Update employee handbooks to reflect the current situation. Comply with safety recommendations to ensure safe re-entry into the workplace. Educate employees about staying safe. Compliance is a huge piece of this right now.
Another piece is understanding the Families First Coronavirus Response Act as it relates to paid leave; employees with child care issues can take leave up to certain periods of time at certain rates of pay.

And employers that never allowed working remotely need to be flexible. Look at how you structure the workday. How can you be flexible but still have employees be productive? Consider work-sharing or bringing back employees on a rotating schedule. Think outside the box of the traditional work day.

What should employers do to help employees with their mental health and well-being?

Companies need to provide resources, through an employee assistance program or some other means. Employees need to understand it’s OK if they’re having anxiety and need help. Even before coronavirus, the ability to balance work and life was difficult. Understand what challenges employees are facing working with children at home. Supporting employee well-being is crucial to them being productive and knowing the company cares about them.

Mental health can affect performance and quality of work. If someone is struggling, they may call off more often and put out an inferior product, which can be costly.

What do employers need to think about regarding retention and recruitment?

COVID-19 has caused recruiting to look very different. Interviews are being done via phone or online job fairs. Given the market, you need to find different ways to recruit.

The flip side is retention. Employers struggle with what benefits to offer to ensure employees stay, to improve consistency of product. Employees can leave any time, and if people have skills you want to retain, it’s important they’re happy.

How important is it for employers to consider diversity, equity and inclusion?

This is critical. Look at what you’re doing to ensure these things are addressed every day. A recent Supreme Court ruling expanded protected classes to include LGBTQ employees. Define diversity and inclusion, and make sure your recruiting and evaluation processes are diverse and your compensation is equitable.

Update your policies, and train employees on them. What policies do you have regarding harassment training? What about diversity training? What do employees do if they have a concern?

Too many employers dismiss training on these issues, but any employee can come forward at any time. It just takes one case, and if you don’t have policies in place, one lawsuit can easily put you out of business.

What are you hearing in the marketplace?

I’m hearing a lot about balancing, employees who need to take leave and how to comply with regulations. People want to do the right thing, but things change every day with new guidelines. It’s important to stay up to date and current. The legislation never stops, and businesses struggle with how to keep up and still get their product out the door.

Work with a trusted adviser, and listen to trusted sources like your state government, state department of labor, the CDC, the EEOC and your chamber of commerce. To be effective, you need to get information from credible sources.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Rea & Associates

How the CARES Act impacts benefit plans for both employees and employers

With the economy reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses closed and millions of employees out of work, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act) is offering financial relief to both businesses and individuals.

Under certain circumstances, the act gives employees easier access to funds in their defined contribution plans. In addition, employers have delayed obligations regarding pension contributions, and there is less of a financial burden for coronavirus-related health care.

“This is relief provided by the government to address some issues that individuals and businesses are facing with the pandemic,” says George P. Pickard, CPA, MSA, principal at Ciuni & Panichi Inc.

Smart Business spoke with Pickard about the benefits aspects of the CARES Act, who qualifies and how to take advantage of its provisions.

Who qualifies for relief under the CARES Act?

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or a spouse or dependent is diagnosed, you qualify. In addition, if you have experienced financial consequences because of a furlough, layoff, reduced hours or quarantine, because your company has closed, or because you are unable to work due to a lack of childcare, you can benefit from its provisions.

What are the changes to the rules for accessing funds in 401(k)s, 403(b)s, ESOPs, SEPs and other plans?

Previously, there were restrictions on how and when you could withdraw funds. While you could access money before turning 59½, in addition to paying taxes on those funds, there was a 10 percent penalty. Under the CARES Act, that withdrawal, up to $100,000, is considered a coronavirus-related distribution and the penalty is waived. In addition, the withdrawal will be taxed as income over three years instead of one, but if you reinvest back into the fund within three years, you avoid the tax altogether.

For 180 days following the March 27 start date, qualified individuals can take distributions of the lesser of $100,000 — up from $50,000 — or 100 percent of their vested balance, up from 50 percent. For 401(k) loans in place when the CARES Act was passed, for repayment due before Dec. 31, 2020, participants can have payroll payback suspended for one year, although interest continues to accrue.

For employees to take advantage of these changes, an amendment must be adopted by the plan. It can implement the changes immediately, but it must formalize amendments to allow employees to withdraw funds.

However, if you don’t absolutely need the money, don’t take it out. With funds down, you are going to realize losses. Leave the money in and allow the stock market to come back. And if you are able, start pumping more money into your funds in this down time.

How does the act impact minimum distribution requirements and health care plans?

Minimum distributions requirements are suspended for 2020, so if you don’t want to withdraw money in a down market, you can leave it in place until 2021.

The CARES Act follows the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). Under FFCRA, health plans are required to cover qualified preventive services and approved diagnostic testing, without any cost-sharing with the employee. The CARES Act expands the types of COVID-19 testing that must be covered.

What is the impact on employers regarding pension plan contributions?

If a business has a single employer plan, it is required to fund the plan to a certain minimum annual amount. Under the CARES Act, it can delay funding until Jan. 1, 2021, although interest on the deferred amount accumulates. This gives companies leeway to use that cash now to keep the business going and pay employees.

However, these plans rely heavily on investment returns to offset what they contribute, and if investments are down, companies could be liable for a very hefty amount.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Cuini & Panichi Inc.

Focus on the short term in order to survive in the long term

The pandemic has put businesses in flux. Not only are they dealing with unprecedented disruption in the market and within their business, the uncertain outlook has made forecasting, even only a couple quarters out, difficult, if not impossible.
Fortunately, companies are coming out of a very strong economy and have strong balance sheets. That’s provided some insulation as they quickly learn to do business differently — for instance, transitioning employees to remote work. But with the state-enforced business closures and hesitancy by many to spend, revenues have taken a hit, which has created cash flow issues.

Even as Ohio starts to open back up, there’s still a lot of timidity brought on by concern for health and safety. People can go back to work but are required to follow guidelines, such as wearing a mask and maintaining a certain distance from coworkers and more. That’s made many employees understandably nervous and that’s affecting business.

Smart Business spoke with Sam Agresti, director of Brady Ware & Company, about some of the ways businesses can regain their footing and chart a path forward.

How do businesses start to get themselves on the road to recovery?

Companies should continue to right-size their business and focus on cash flows — managing liquidity was a key to business success during the Great Recession, and that will be key now. Then they need to continue to adapt to the necessity of doing business differently, especially considering there could be a second wave of COVID-19 infections that could force another round of restrictions on social gatherings that once again limit how business is conducted. Businesses need to quickly adapt to the lessons that have been learned over these last couple months about the new environment, with particular focus on managing expenses and finding creative ways to ramp revenues back up again.

Also, while culture may not seem like something businesses should focus on right now, it’s a critically important aspect of doing business during a time of high stress. As people come back to their offices, cracks in the culture can be exacerbated. If the culture is not managed, those fissures can cause further disruption, so it’s important to spend some time on maintaining and keeping the culture strong.

What should planning look like in this environment of uncertainty?

Businesses should have a very short-term focus and plan only for the next one to three months. Anything more than that and it may be wasted time as there’s too much disruption and uncertainty because it’s not at all clear what the fall will look like. Within a month to three months, companies can identify their focus and still be able to pivot if necessary. Staying flexible will be key as so much continues to change practically every day.

Who can help businesses as they begin to open back up?

Companies should reach out to their outside advisers and internal boards for advice. Many of these folks are working with lot of different businesses and have experienced a lot of different situations. They can offer insight as to how other businesses have dealt with these challenge. Businesses should also keep in touch with their banker to maintain that relationship, keeping them abreast of their situation and generally just stay out in front of financial issues as best they can.

It’s prudent for companies to talk monthly with their board and adviser group, more frequently — weekly or bi-weekly — if the business is in a dire situation. During March and April, it wasn’t uncommon for some businesses to maintain a standing weekly phone call with their advisers to discuss cash flows, forecasting and other pressing business matters.

CEOs can’t and shouldn’t try to manage this crisis alone. Get as broad a perspective on the situation as possible and be willing to try any feasible solution that will help the company stay relevant as customer needs, and the market itself, change.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Brady Ware & Company

Explore operations to rein in expenses, map a path forward

With so much change happening in the market, businesses are trying their best to manage the day to day and plan a path forward. But there is only so much businesses can affect when it comes to their financial performance.

Many companies have their attention focused on managing expenses and finding ways to keep costs down, because that’s about all that’s within their power to fully control. However, Phil Hurak, a shareholder at Clark Schaefer Hackett, warns that while survival is critical, companies should be careful not to undermine their long-term performance in the name of short-term savings.

Smart Business spoke with Hurak about how businesses can explore operations to both reduce expenses and begin to plot a path forward.

How can businesses identify cost-reduction opportunities?

Businesses should create a cross-functional team from key areas of operation — technology, HR, supply chain and sales, for instance — to identify issues and opportunities within each of those functions. Then, overlay those findings with the short- and long-term strategic vision of the company, along with current imperatives such as cost reductions or enhanced profitability. This should produce an evaluation that will inform the strategic vision and avoid missteps that could undermine the company’s long-term efforts. For example, it might seem that one easy way to increase profitability in the short term would be to eliminate all research and development. That might bring immediate cost reduction benefits, but it would likely harm the company’s long-term strategic direction. Looking through every option with that strategic vision in mind is going to be important as companies work to responsibly reduce expenses.

How can companies consider the long-term view when the short-term picture is so fuzzy?

Businesses have tended to take a 30-60-90 view, and then consider the good, better and best scenarios as they operate under extreme uncertainty. For example, they’re looking at potential decreases in revenue of between 10 and 50 percent. Whichever reality manifests will drive different decisions and activities. But businesses really don’t know what the future is going to look like from a top-line revenue standpoint. So in the short run, they’re establishing a matrix of options, contemplating the potential impact within each of those scenarios and then outlining plans that would manage the associated expenses and other cost investments for each outcome.

What can tax benefit optimization offer companies right now?

Looking through an income, cash flow or profitability statement, the tax line is often one of the largest expenses companies bear. Certainly, payroll and possibly real estate are significant costs, but taxes can have a profound effect on profitability. Federal income tax; sales, payroll and property tax; excise and state taxes; and others can add up to be one of the largest expenses of an organization. Therefore, tax benefit optimization is an expense line that can and should be actively managed to maximize cash flow and profitability.

For those who were awarded the PPP loans, what should they be thinking about and preparing for now?

Companies now should be looking into how they can prepare the documentation that maximizes the forgiveness of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. And there has been some guidance from the SBA around its plans to audit and review loans. While current guidance says loans over $2 million will receive an audit, companies that received loans under that amount will need to substantiate and document how those loans were used to receive forgiveness. Maximizing forgiveness and establishing a process for documentation are most critical for businesses.

In a very short time, there have been changes to every aspect of commerce and communication. No one business or individual can have all the answers as to how these challenges can be successfully navigated. Now is the time to reach out to advisers and work with strategic partners to collectively gather the best available information and develop a plan.

Insights Accounting is brought to you by Clark Schaefer Hackett

How to inventory threats to build critical IT defenses

From time to time, it’s healthy for companies to identify threats that are unique to their business and what might happen if one of those threats — a cyberattack that compromises customer payment information — manifested.

It’s also prudent for companies to understand what frontline defenses they have (or don’t have) to prevent such threats from impacting their business. Often these are IT systems housing critical data or supporting vital networks.

The recent increase of remote employees has added a layer of risk. Now is a good time to perform a risk assessment to ensure critical data and networks are secure.

Smart Business spoke with Brian Garland, a manager at Rea & Associates, about risk assessments and IT audits, and how the two work together to mitigate threats and their impact.

How do risk assessments and IT audits work together?
Risk assessments should be viewed as a strategic initiative, one that helps define the risk appetite clearly for the company in relation to the key information systems it needs to protect. They help companies understand what’s important to protect and why on a proactive basis, and what the fallout would be if they fail.

In a mature security environment, they’re followed up by IT audits, which determine if the systems and controls that are in place are functioning appropriately to stay within a company’s defined risk tolerances and meet whatever regulatory requirements they might have.

Typically, risk assessments are done annually, especially in environments that contain regulated data. However, any time a company has significant system changes or changes in its environment — the abrupt shift to a remote work environment, for example — it’s a good idea to run an assessment so companies can safeguard their assets appropriately.

How do IT audits map to regulatory compliance?
In regulated industries — banking and health care, for instance — or for companies that accept credit card data, IT audits provide evidence of the company’s compliance with the control requirements in place and establish that there’s an ongoing compliance environment. Companies that face something like a cyberbreach but have documentation of an annual IT audit have, at the very least, proof of an effort to demonstrate and maintain compliance.

With employees now largely working from home, companies need to be cognizant of the security impacts of the technology solution that they choose to make available to their employees. For instance, the decision to allow employees to utilize either an RDP or VPN solution for access to company resources should be weighed specifically by the technology’s potential impact on data confidentiality, integrity and availability. Whatever the situation and the tech used, it’s really about being aware of the potential threats, vulnerabilities and resulting risks, and ensuring that the right software tools, policies and procedures are in place to work securely.

How should companies apply what they’ve learned from an IT risk assessment?
The risk assessment process should give a clear sense of the current IT environment and controls in place, the estimated likelihood and impact of contemporary threats, and where gaps in controls exist that present significant risk. For companies without a security framework already in place, a risk assessment should lead to a list of the controls to be implemented to protect the network and data.

It should also give a sense of how a company is prepared to respond to an event that could shut it down for days or weeks at a time and what that impact might look like.

There should be documented policies and procedures in place to govern IT systems and the underlying data, outlining which activities are permitted by the company. These policies form the basis for the company’s data security program and help demonstrate the control environment in place and its alignment with any regulatory compliance requirements for data security impacting the company. Those policies and procedures should be reviewed and tested annually to make sure they cover all systems, processes and data elements considered critical to the business.

By having a clear understanding of the current risk environment, companies can spend their security resources intelligently.

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